The huge tree is bare, but budding. Forty years ago when we first arrived in the Eurobodalla it was a small sapling, enclosed by a wire cage to protect it from dairy cows.
Just below the tree, about a kilometre from the bush block where my children grew up, the Tuross River makes its way to the sea. At the moment it flows gently, the sound of the mini-rapids just audible from the bridge. Sometimes it roars along, rising over the bridge, covering the riverside reserve, and once dramatically inching its way up the hill where we used to have a market garden. In severe drought it wavers to a bare trickle. Always it winds its way through the autobiography of my family.
On baking summer afternoons long ago we headed down to the deep pool near the jumping log. Little heads bobbed around in the shade of the casuarinas: arms flapped energetically, supported by yellow floaties.The big girl from the farm across the road appeared and soon the eldest daughter was swimming confidently under her no-nonsense tutelage. As the years passed, the older kids scrambled down the bank through brambles to the log and jumped off with a mighty splash. One afternoon we shared the snorkels and goggles and practised underwater observation on the very long eel, who retreated amongst the tree roots to escape the crowd.
During severe drought, the river all but disappeared. The farmer over the road dug a deep narrow channel and suddenly there was water. The children loved lying back and being carried along. Brown Surprise, on the other hand, thought they were drowning and ran up and down above them barking madly. At the end of the day, we’d take down barrels to collect water: our thousand gallon tank was nearly empty and there were six of us drawing on the limited supply. When a nit infestation invaded the house, we took all the bedding to the river, and washed it there. Our kids delighted in telling their townie classmates that they were drinking our bath water and washing water.
Slowly the kids grew up. Soon they were old enough to ride their bikes down to the river to meet their mates, and get up to all sorts of mischief. At night, they camped on the stretch of sand and occasionally went eeling. They discovered that a bread and butter knife was no use for eel-murder and threw the eel back to the roots below the water.
One day they rescued a baby crane from the sandy bank. They christened him Spike, after his hostile headgear rather than his excessive beak. He adopted their father as his, and decided the laundry was his nest. He attacked feet if they were bare when he was hungry, clacking at them sideways. If he squawked and clacked enough, Dad would stuff mince meat down his throat till his neck looked like a blocked vacuum cleaner hose. Then he was bunged outside before he began shaking his head to check that it was properly dead and dispersed it in a rough circle around him. When his neck was empty, he’d run around in circles, wings extended, squawking. His diet was obviously lacking, because he got rickets, staggering around on his knee joints till we dosed him on pentavite and sunshine. One morning he woke everyone up by systematically flinging and pinging drill bits he’d found in an ice cream container against the washing machine and soon after he swallowed a bolt from the tool box. My daughter stuck her fist down his throat and removed it, and then fed him milk to soothe the lacerations. He finally disappeared on New Year’s Eve, although there have been family tales of encounters with a crane who “seemed to know me.”
In the days of the market garden, I spent a lot of time by the river. I pulled up carrots and beetroot from the rich dirt of the river flats and took a load to wash, dragging it in a basket down the grassy track. At the end of a hot busy day picking, planting or weeding, we’d all fling ourselves in for a cooling wallow.
Immersed in post-separation misery, I set out to paint the house. After a morning session with the paint brush, I’d take myself down to the waterhole and plunge in. It was strange being there alone, in the middle of the day. I splashed around, contemplating the sudden change in my life, wondering how to ease my way into accepting its new shape with grace, and pleased by the undemanding physicality of cool water on bare skin.
When I arrived in Broken Hill to take up my teaching career, I went to professional training and suddenly found myself being asked to meditate, using a special place of calm to anchor me. I chose this bit of river, and suddenly found myself tearful and homesick.
The children have all gone away from the river now, except for Christmas visits. When they congregate, we lounge by the river, the grandchildren frolic with the dogs, and sometimes the kayaks are lifted off the roof and fishing lines are unreeled.
Sometimes the ageing parents (us) take chairs, glasses and a bottle of wine and sit in the reserve above the river as the stars come out, and the last light ripples in water darkening above the sand. Occasionally on a very hot night, we sit in the deep pool near the bridge and reminisce.
The river is the measure of the passing years.